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ASNE Online Ethics Tool

Posted, Aug. 4, 2004
Updated, Aug. 4, 2004

QuickLink: A67835

Writing Tool #17: The Number of Elements

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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The number of examples you use in a sentence or a story has meaning.

A self-conscious writer has no choice but to select a specific number of examples or elements in a sentence or paragraph. The writer chooses the number, and when it is greater than one, the order. (If you think the order of a list unimportant, try reciting the names of the Four Evangelists in an order other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.)

The Number One: Declare It

Let's examine some texts with our X-ray reading glasses, looking down beneath the surface meaning to the grammatical machinery at work below.

That girl is smart.

In this simple sentence, the writer declares a single defining characteristic of the girl, her intelligence. The reader must focus on that. It is this effect of unity, single-mindedness, no-other-alternativeness, that characterizes the language of one.

  • Jesus wept.
  • Call me.
  • Call me Ishmael.
  • Go to hell.
  • Here's Johnny.
  • I do.
  • God is love.
  • Elvis.
  • Elvis has left the building.
  • Whassup?
  • You da man!
  • Word.
  • True.
  • I have a dream.
  • I have a headache.
  • Not now.
  • Read my lips.

Tom Wolfe once told William F. Buckley Jr., that if a writer wants the reader to think something the absolute truth, the writer should render it in the shortest possible sentence. Trust me.


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The Number Two: Compare It

We know that girl is smart, but what happens when we learn:

That girl is smart and sweet.

The writer has altered our perspective on the world. The choice for the reader is not between smart and sweet. Instead, the writer forces us to hold these two characteristics in our mind at the same time. We have to balance them, weigh them against each other, compare and contrast them.

  • Mom and dad.
  • True or false.
  • Scylla and Charybdis.
  • The devil and the deep blue sea.
  • Ham and eggs.
  • Abbott and Costello.
  • Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus.
  • Sam and Dave.
  • Dick and Jane.
  • Rock and Roll.
  • Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
  • I and Thou.

The Number Three: Surround It

The dividing magic of number two turns into what one scholar calls the "encompassing" magic of number three.

That girl is smart, sweet, and determined.

As this sentence grows, we are influenced to see the girl in a more well-rounded way. Rather than simplify her as smart, or divide her as smart and sweet, we now triangulate the elements of her character. In our language and culture, three seems to give us a sense of the whole:

  • Beginning, middle, and end.
  • Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
  • Heaven, purgatory, and hell.
  • Tinkers to Evers to Chance.
  • Of the people, by the people, for the people.
  • A priest, a minister, and a rabbi.
  • On your mark, get set, go.
  • Mickey, Willie, and the Duke.
  • Executive, Legislative, Judicial.
  • The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

At the end of his most famous passage on the nature of love, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: "For now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three. But the greatest of all is love." The powerful movement is from trinity to unity. From a sense of the whole to an understanding of what is most important.

The Number Four or More: Count It

In the anti-math of writing, the number three is greater than four. Part of the magic of three is that it offers a greater sense of completeness than four or more. Once we add a fourth or fifth detail we have achieved escape velocity, breaking out of the circle of wholeness:

That girl is smart, sweet, determined, and anorexic.

We can add descriptive elements to infinity. Four or more examples create a list, but not a complete inventory. Four or more details in a passage can offer a flowing, literary effect that the best writers have created since Homer listed the names of the Greek ships. Consider the beginning of Jonathan Lethem's novel "Motherless Brooklyn":

"Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I'm a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I've got Tourette's."

If we check these sentences against our theory of numbers, it would reveal this pattern: 1-2-5-1. In the first sentence the author declares a single idea, stated as the absolute truth. In the second, he gives the reader two imperative verbs. In the third, he spins five metaphors. In the final sentence, the writer returns to a definitive declaration –- so important he casts it in italics.

So good writing is as easy as one, two, three ... and four.

In summary:

  • Use one for power.
  • Use two for comparison, contrast.
  • Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.
  • Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox

  1. Begin an intense process of X-ray reading for examples in which the writer uses the number of items to achieve a specific effect.
  2. Re-read some examples of your own recent work. Examine your own use of numbers. Look for cases in which you might want to add an example or subtract one to create the effects described above.
  3. Have a brainstorming sessions with friends in which you list additional examples of the use of one, two, three, and four. Draw these from proverbs, everyday speech, music lyrics, famous speeches, literature, sports.
  4. Look for an opportunity to use a long list in a story. For example, the names of kittens in a new litter. The items in the window of an old drugstore. Things abandoned at the bottom of a swimming pool. Play with the order of the list to achieve the best effect.

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